Connecting the cultural and political dots, and revisiting a classic film by Costa-Gavras
There’s an old saying that a poem doesn’t mean, but simply is. The saying’s trotted out when folks in English class rambunctiously insist on extracting a prose meaning from a work of poetry — not unlike getting a furball out of a cat by using a brickbat. What’s implied is that poetry is a process, a way of seeing, and that it differs from prose. Try as one might, one may fail to transplant the life of a poem into some other medium.
Like this, really great films may have their subject matter, but what often makes them great is their way of seeing ordinary interactions between people and how the universe works. Yes, there’s a plot and dialogue, and there may be prosaic meanings; but there’s also a certain poetry to filmic images.
So if I tell you the 1969 film Z is a political thriller, don’t misunderstand or imagine it would bore you if you’re not much into politics. Like most great films, it transcends its subject matter by being about people and how the universe works. It remains as fresh and relevant today as it was when released nearly fifty years ago.
Still, I was drawn to revisit Z by a number of prosaic events: the election of Donald Trump, the investigation into political sabotage of U.S. elections, and the final run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in the French race for president, which is being decided as I write.
Then too, I have friends who visited Greece on a spiritual retreat over the Christmas/New Year’s vacation. Z is a French language film based loosely on political events in Greece during the mid-1960s. A French-Algerian production, it was nonetheless directed (and partially written) by Greek émigré Costa-Gavras, with music by Mikis Theodorakis, and Irene Papas in a supporting role.
The film also concerns what we now call “peace studies.” According to Radford University,
Peace studies is a broad, interdisciplinary activity, which includes research, reflection, and dialogue concerning the causes of war, conflict, and violence and the orientation necessary to establish peace…
We are aware today of population explosion, on-going climate collapse, diminishing natural resources, worldwide pollution from both toxic and non-toxic wastes, and the threat of massive, globally devastating wars.
People have realized, in consequence of these planetary developments, that we need to begin thinking about peace in a sustained and substantial way.
Reflection on the causes of war inevitably raises the issue of structural violence (unjust social and economic structures linked with extreme poverty and deprivation) and the issue of imperialism (dominant nations acting aggressively within the world system to promote their perceived national interests). This in turn leads us to ask why soldiers are willing to fight or kill strangers at the command of their governments, and hence to questions of socialization, biology, psychology, etc.
Within the peace studies movement there tend to be two broad approaches to questions of violence, war, and peace. One emphasizes the human individual and his or her consciousness and the paradigms by which he or she might be operating. Change toward peaceful behavior is often emphasized through education, consciousness raising, dialogue, … meditation, or other ways of influencing individual behavior in the direction of more peaceful relationships.
Jump cut to a speech by the pacifist leader from Z:
They hit me. Why? Why do our ideas provoke such violence? Why do they find peace intolerable? Why don’t they attack other organizations? The answer is simple: The others are nationalists used by the government, and don’t upset our Judas allies who betray us.
We lack hospitals and doctors, but half the budget goes for military expenditures. A cannon is fired, and a teacher’s monthly salary goes up in smoke!
That’s why they can’t bear us or our meetings and use hired thugs to jeer and attack us. Around the world, too many soldiers are ready to fire on anything moving toward progress.
But our fight is theirs too. We live in a weak and corrupt society where it’s every man for himself. Even imagination is suspect, yet it’s needed to solve world problems. The stockpile of A-bombs is equal to one ton of dynamite per person on earth.
They want to prevent us from reaching the obvious political conclusions based on these simple truths. But we will speak out! We serve the people, and the people need the truth. The truth is the start of powerful, united action.
The logistics of setting up this speech by the pacifist leader were mind-boggling. His supporters couldn’t get a permit, and every time they hired a hall the owner would later cancel to due government pressure.
After giving his speech, the pacifist leader was seriously injured in a further attack. A doctor told his wife: “I knew your husband. We were at school together. I wanted to go on his Peace Marathon, but it was banned.”
Jump cut to the testimony of Assani and Paule, Marseilles, 29 March, 2000:
We organize a cultural event each year called the International Peace Run which is open to everyone. Hundreds of thousands of people in the world participate each year and France is the only country that has refused, several times, to grant passage to the runners. “Anti-cult” individuals follow the course of the race. This year they were in a car taking pictures. They intervene as late as possible on the eve of the event so it’s too late for us to do anything about it.
We organized a Sri Chinmoy concert in 1991 in the ‘Parc des Expositions,’ with approval from City Hall. When I requested approval to hold a concert in the same park in 1995, it was denied. The park managers told me: “We don’t have a problem with you. Last time you behaved decently and paid. But we can’t get approval from City Hall because you are part of this list.”
Last year we organized a concert in Paris. A friend told me, “The district City Hall called me. They tried to convince me you were awful people, but it didn’t work. Don’t worry.”
For other events, we did manage to obtain a stadium. The sports manager at City Hall is a real friend and he participates in our runs. He knows us so well he forgot we are portrayed as a dangerous cult and he gave us approval for regular races, once a month. So we started passing out flyers to invite people to a race. The next day a newspaper ran an article entitled: “The cult is running.”
In Z, the opposition has to struggle against authoritarianism and mindless bureaucracy. But sadly, these things can thrive in both right and left-wing governments. That’s why I favour liberal democracies which genuinely guarantee (in both principle and practice) the rights of minorities, whether political or spiritual. France, in its idealized form, is such a bastion of freedom. But at times it has to struggle to live up to its ideals.
The past is dust, and perhaps the runners have made progress in recent years. I do not mean to single out France for criticism. It’s a beautiful country, and I greatly admire the French people for their intelligence, sophistication, language, and culture.
Yet, in recent decades France has seen the emergence of a type of forced secularism which tries to eliminate all forms of religion or spirituality from the public square, or from public expression. This stems from an extreme secular view which sees religion and spirituality only as a source of conflict, but fails to recognize in them a source of peace, compassion, and ideals of self-giving.
This problem is not unique to France, but is a tragedy of the modern world, in which the very real benefits of science and intellectual progress at times eclipse the spiritual aspect, which is also very real, essential to human happiness, and a natural part of life.
In France, this trend toward secularism has led to laws restricting religious garb. If you’re wearing a hijab, sari, or yarmulke, you might face (legalized) job discrimination, or be barred from using public facilities.
As an American, perhaps I’m naïve. While it’s true that religion can be a source of conflict, so can food. Trying to solve the problem of conflict over different religious beliefs by banning religion from the public square is like trying to solve the problem of people quarreling over food by starving them to death.
When it comes to the French presidential election now being decided, I believe religious and spiritual minorities will fare better under a President Macron than a President Le Pen. According to an article in The Guardian:
In her apartment in a northern suburb of Paris, Hanane Charrihi looked at a photograph of her mother Fatima. “Her death shows that we need tolerance more than ever,” she said. “Tolerance does exist in France, but sometimes it seems those who are against tolerance shout the loudest and get the most airtime.”
Fatima Charrihi, 59, a Muslim grandmother, was the first of 86 people to be killed in a terrorist attack in Nice last summer when a lorry driver ploughed into crowds watching Bastille Day fireworks. She had left her apartment and gone down to the seafront to have an ice-cream with her grandchildren. Wearing a hijab, she was the first person the driver hit in the gruesome attack claimed by Islamic State. A third of those killed in the Nice attack were Muslims. But Fatima Charrihi’s family, some wearing headscarves, were insulted by passersby who called them “terrorists” even as they crouched next to their mother’s body under a sheet at the site of the attack. “We don’t want people like you here any more,” a man outside a café told her family soon after the attack.
Hanane Charrihi, 27, a pharmacist, was so irked to find that, even after her mother’s death, the so-called “problem” of Islam in France was such a focus of political debate that she wrote a book, Ma mère patrie, a plea for living together harmoniously in diversity. The far-right Front National gained a slew of new members in Nice after the attack and now Marine Le Pen’s presence in the final presidential runoff this weekend – after taking a record 7.6 million votes in the first round – has pushed the issue of Islam and national identity to the top of the agenda.
“I’m French, I love my country, and it seemed like people were saying to me: ‘No, you can’t possibly love France,’” Hanane Charrihi said. “All this focus on debating national identity by politicians seems like wasting time that could be focused instead on unemployment, work or housing.”
The runoff between the far-right, anti-immigration Le Pen and the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron has seen heated exchanges over Islam and national identity. In 2015, Le Pen was tried and cleared of inciting religious hatred after comparing Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation. Macron has insisted that Le Pen still represents “the party of hatred.” He told a Paris rally this week: “I won’t accept people being insulted just because they believe in Islam.”
This makes for a rather easy segue into Trump World and the Muslim ban. So easy, in fact, that I won’t waste much time on it except to say that right-wing populist movements, whether American or European, find it easy to paint targets on the heads of religious and spiritual minorities.
In reviewing Z for flickfeast.co.uk, Miguel Rosa writes:
Z is not an easy film to watch. For anyone who loves freedom, many scenes will feel like vicious punches to the stomach. Several times I shuddered at the injustices being committed with impunity. The film is not a celebration of freedom and truth, but rather an elegy for these important but fragile values. Costa-Gavras turned the tragedy of his country into a grim parable about something that can happen anywhere.
I’m afraid I only partially agree. I see tremendous idealism in Z. True, that idealism is dashed, but in such a way as to make the viewer long for truth and freedom even more strongly. Z is also filled with poignant observations about the human condition and the experience of grieving for a beloved person, plus rollicking satire on the officiousness and self-importance of military brass, who get their comeuppance in the end (or do they?).
Z is not by any stretch of the imagination a religious film, but it does portray the veritable crucifixion of a pacifist political leader (played so well by Yves Montand). That crucifixion does not mark the end of a movement, but the beginning of one — or at least its re-dedication. Indeed, the film’s unique one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “He lives” or “He is immortal” — was banned (as graffiti) by the right-wing dictatorship which took control of Greece in 1967.
With so much art and culture scrapped by the incoming junta, many left-leaning Greeks did in fact flee to France and other nations where the political and cultural climate was more hospitable. They told their story with passion, and became a force for positive change. In this sense they were like disciples of the crucified Greek parliamentarian Grigoris Lambrakis (on whom the film is based), spreading his message of peace to the Greek diaspora, not unlike the apostle Paul.
I’ve seen a number of political thrillers, and none of them has the passion of Z combined with such brilliant directing, acting, cinematography, plus vibrant musical direction by Mikis Theodorakis, whose instructions were smuggled out of Greece (since he himself was under house arrest at the time).
Z IS is a celebration of freedom and truth. That the celebration is cut short in its final hours is but a bittersweet reminder that to establish anything resembling freedom and truth on earth is a constant struggle, and there will often be setbacks.
Despite being about politics, Z is one of the best art films of the sixties, an absolute must-see for a new generation which may not have heard of it. It’s a film belonging distinctly to the modern era, striking for its use of flashbacks and depictions of the same events from multiple viewpoints a la Kurosawa’s Rashomon.
For political junkies, the relevance of Z to today’s controversies lies foremost in the character of the inquest judge or magistrate (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant). His role is similar to a special prosecutor or independent counsel. He’s a member of the ruling party, and is inclined to accept the explanation proffered by police that the injury to the pacifist leader was no more than a drunk driving incident.
As today with Trump and Russia, no proof of collusion, but plenty of coincidences! So will the magistrate have the determination and perspicacity to see the investigation through? Can he really be impartial, or will he bend to the ruling party? If he gets too close to the truth, will he be fired by the monarch like FBI director James Comey?
Another important character is the photojournalist (Jaques Perrin, who co-produced). At first he seems cynical and opportunistic (we hate him when he barges in on the widow, Nikon motor drive whirring all the while), but gradually he displays kindness and devotion to truth. His own investigation uncovers facts which he brings to the attention of the magistrate. In this sense, Z is like All The President’s Men and JFK rolled into one, but is better than either. It’s an extraordinarily decent film which only improves with repeated viewings. It has more passion than All The President’s Men, reveals a broader spectrum of humanity, has better character development, and unlike JFK never descends into needless vulgarity.
Another example of character development is the fig seller, Barone. We initially see him as a thug keen to participate in vigilante violence. Later we come to pity him when we find that he’s illiterate, powerless, loves his birds, and is desperately afraid of the police Colonel who manipulates him to do his dirty work.
The biggest question mark is always the figure of the magistrate, who seems impassive, unemotional, and skeptical of opposition claims. Yet, his legal training inclines him toward precision and objectivity. Had he been investigating Nixon, he would undoubtedly have fallen victim to the famed “Saturday Night Massacre.”
In the 1960s and 70s, as governments became subject to greater public scrutiny for corruption and malfeasance, an existing genre — the police procedural or detective story — was expanded to encompass the activities of journalists and prosecutors investigating government itself. Thus, Z is (among other things) a cracking good detective yarn with a plot twist at the end. Like most good detective yarns, it leads the viewer through different strata of society, from elite government officials, to a private vigilante group called CROC, to the daily lives of merchants and tradesmen struggling to survive, and (of course) left-leaning peace activists.
For modern day political junkies, another connection between Z World and Trump World is the bizarre speech given by General Missou (Pierre Dux) in the opening scene. He claims the nation is under attack from ideological mildew brought on by parasitic agents. With the arrival of beatniks, Dutch Provos, and pacifists, sunspots appear on the face of the golden orb. God refuses to enlighten the Reds. It’s a delightfully funny crackpot theory worthy of one of Trump’s political appointees to the Department of Redundancy Department (or the Veterans Tapdance Administration).
The passion and suasive power of Z is partly a function of the times it reflects: a point in the late 60s when there was still a strong streak of unalloyed idealism about the prospects for peace, and when it seemed much easier to tell the goodies from the baddies than it later became. The activists in Z aren’t perfect, but we like them because they’re courageous, idealistic, and genuinely committed to peace — even if they’re sometimes tempted to tear up the town out of sheer frustration. The demise of their leader leads them to deep soul-searching.
Then too, Z evokes archetypes from the 60s which no one who lived through that period (even as a pre-teen, as I did), can forget. As a twelve-year-old in June 1968, I stayed up all night watching reports from the hospital as doctors tried in vain to save the life of Robert Kennedy, who had been shot just after giving a victory speech in California, where he had won the presidential primary. I still remember the haggard face of Kennedy aide Frank Mankiewicz, who finally issued a brief statement:
So many of the figures who worked toward peace had great heart, and this theme is explored in Z through a heartbeat sound made by percussion instruments, and repeated reference to the strength and resilience of the pacifist leader’s heart, which continues to beat and refuses to quit.
Z had a super successful run in America, where it received Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Film Editing, and was also nominated for Best Picture. I’m sure that for many Americans it evoked all too recent memories of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.
I’ve only skimmed the surface of Z, using it as an excuse to branch out into other matters. But that’s what a good poem does, too. It narrows your focus to details about the human condition, and that narrow focus somehow possesses the ability to widen into a view which takes in the entire universe. Puzzling, is it not?
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
Sidebar: More Z Apocrypha
Costa-Gavras on Z (brief WNYC interview)
“Lambrakis is gone, but his legacy lives on!” by Nicolas Mottas
Z, The Novel
The film is actually based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos (who is not the inventor of Vaseline):
(Definitely a bargain at 95 cents.)
CROC vs. KROC
In Z, the vigilante group used by the government to attack left-leaning pacifists is called CROC, or Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. Ironically, today there’s a KROC INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE STUDIES at the University of Notre Dame. (No, the picture on their home page is not a Cialis ad.) The pressing question per the film? Are they for football?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Film buffs have noticed that in the scene where pacifists hand out flyers announcing their new rally location, a large peace emblem covers a French signboard for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This was a 1966 “spaghetti western” starring Clint Eastwood and featuring senseless violence:
When the goons attack the pacifists, an injured man is seen lying on the signboard. A woman tries to help him up, but is kicked in the posterior. In retrospect, this almost seems like a metaphor for Trumpcare. 😉
This is not just movie trivia, but reveals the visual language used by the filmmaker to talk about peace vs. violence. Costa-Gavras is making a dark joke which we won’t get unless we identify the movie poster and know what critics said about the film.
* * *